Thursday, August 26, 2010

Importance of Constructive Feedback

Constructive feedback from sensory analysis of beer is crucial to improving the quality of that beer.  While a brewer may improve their process, research improved brewing techniques, and fine-tune recipes, the only thing that matters in the end is the quality of the beer in the glass.  As such, effectively evaluating perceived flavors against expectations, such as beer style, is extremely important.

Sensory feedback of beer can come from several sources.  Large breweries use sensory panels to perform analysis of batches of beer against controls.  The sensory panels comprise of several individuals with refined palates, such as super-tasters, who compare a given batch of beer against a standard for that beer.  Feedback from these sensory panels are then used to help blend batches of beer prior to bottling, to achieve a constant flavor for the brand.  In a similar manner, smaller commercial breweries utilize the palates of their brewers and customers to provide feedback on their beers.  Brewers who have worked with a given recipe for a long time can taste both the raw ingredients and the finished beer to make adjustments to keep the beer in a flavor range.  While this method is not as impartial as the sensory panel approach, it can be effective and it does not have as high an overhead cost.

For homebrewers, the most common sensory analysis feedback comes from homebrewing competitions or from friends.  Homebrewing competitions provide the entrant with somewhat impartial feedback, in so far as the entries are anonymous and the judges compare entries of similar categories together.  Judges can also be ranked by the national Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), though a competition's ability to attract ranked judges varies widely.  Friends can provide feedback on homebrewed beer, though in my experience, it usually results in comments like "it tastes good."

That simple phrase points out the importance of constructive sensory feedback.  As a brewer, I cannot improve on my craft with such a statement.  While I appreciate someone enjoying my labors, I prefer to hear more about what the taster did not like about the beer, or how it did not meet their expectations.  This lack of constructive criticism is not limited to a brewer's friends either.  I received the following written comment on the flavor evaluation of an oatmeal stout I recently submitted for competition:

"A wonderful balance of roast, coffee and some subtle chocolate-like flavors.  A great balanced finish.  No apparent fermentation flaws.  No  hops detected."

I received 10 out of 20 points on flavor for that beer.  I wish I had some constructive advice from the judge to both warrant the score and, more importantly, on how to improve my beer.

We can all strive to be better sensory analysts of beer flavor by thinking more about what we are tasting and then verbalizing both our perceptions and our constructive criticisms, in an appropriate environment.  The end result will lead to nothing but better beer for all.



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